Last Sunday, Roger Federer turned in a masterly display of tennis in trouncing Andy Murray in the final of the Australian Open. By all accounts , it was one of his best performances in recent years rivalling his victory over Roddick at Wimbledon last year . Andy Murray , perhaps overawed by the occasion, was inexplicably defensive at the beginning of the match andquickly found himself two sets down to Federer before he woke up and decided to go for broke. By then it was too late and when Murray squandered several break points in the third set, Federer slammed the door shut to clinch his 16th Grand Slam triumph. Murray seems to have all the strokes, all the physical tools but , at this stage of his career, he doesn’t seem to have the mental fortitude to challenge Federer for supremacy. Perhaps , as Boris Becker suggested, he should have as a full time coach somebody like Tony Roche, who can instill in him the necessary mental toughness to gut out the close matches.
Murray has had a reputation for being brash and a little surly but in defeat, he won over the spectators when he shed some tears and said ” I can cry like Roger. I just can’t play like him.” He is too good a player to be shut out of the Grand Slams and, as Federer noted, his time will come. I don’t think it will be at Wimbledon, where the expectations of the home crowd constitute an added burden ; more likely, his first Grand Slam will be at the U.S Open or at the Australian Open. Not , however, until Roger slows down or retires and that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon.
In the aftermath of his Australian Open victory, Federer has come in for criticism from some quarters of the press. The main criticisms are :1) He played with Andy Murray’s mind with some of his pre-match comments about the pressure on him to win. 2) He took a toilet break ( even though he didn’t need it) in his quarterfinal match against Nikolay Davydenko because he wanted the sun to go down a little so that the court was not half in shadow. 3) He was arrogant in his post match comments.
Initially, I was in sympathy with some of these criticisms but, as I read more about them, I ‘ve made almost a complete about-face. Let’s consider the issues one by one.
1. Federer’s gamesmanship. In a well written piece titled ” I don’t love Roger”. Gerard Whately of ABC News had this to say :
His treatment of Andy Murray in the lead up to the final was rampant psychological warfare. Federer doesn’t like Murray. Didn’t invite him to the charity bash. There was nothing good natured in his jibes about the pressure of expectation. “Look he’s in his second Grand Slam final now. I think the first one’s always a bit tougher than the second one. But now that he didn’t win the first one, I think it doesn’t help for the second time around……Plus he’s playing, you know, me, who’s won many Grand Slams prior to that, been able to win here three times so I know what it takes and how to do it.” Even when excusing himself of the charge of “trying to screw with his head”, Federer added for emphasis: “The next one is not gonna get any easier.”
Rather than gamesmanship, I think this was a case of Federer giving an honest answer at a press conference. on such occasions, he has a habit of speaking his mind , offering the unvarnished truth when it would be politic to be more tactful. Not one of his comments was untrue.I remember something similar happening a couple of years ago when he had lost to Murray, I think at Dubai, but appeared to be less than gracious in talking about the defeat. Then , as now, he was merely telling us what he felt. I agree that it would have been better public relations to have been more diplomatic and given a bland, innocuous reply. I also remember what happened when a former champion, Pete Sampras, did just that. The press , and later the public, labeled him as b-o-r-i-n-g.
2) The toilet break. About which Whately writes “What about his blatant gamesmanship against Nikolay Davydenko – taking a sauntering toilet break after barely half an hour having lost the opening set to allow the shadow of the roof to move further across the court.He giggled about it afterwards. And everyone laughed along with jolly old Roger.” Elsewhere Federer is said to have gloated about his tactic.
In the first place, Federer was entitled to take a toilet break . He didn’t break any rules in doing so no more than Phil Mickelson used a technicality in the USGA rules to use a putter that gave him an advantage.In both cases I wish they hadn’t done it but it most definitely was not cheating . Athletes are constantly trying to get whatever little edge they can. In baseball, if a pitcher has settled into a groove , the batters try to throw him off his rhythm by stepping out of the batter’s box just as he is winding up to pitch. In tennis ,one sees the the same thing happen as the service returner calls time just as the server is about to toss the ball up . Or when the returner slows down the pace of the match by taking a few extra seconds to wipe off the sweat in between points. What Federer did was less reprehensible than that and I should point out that Davydenko won a couple of games after the enforced break; it was only afterwards that he faltered.
3. His arrogance . Whately quotes him as saying “There’s no secret behind it. You know, I mean, (I’m) definitely a very talented player (laughter). I always knew I had something special, but I didn’t know it was like that crazy.” and then goes on to snipe that Not since Greg Norman declared he was in awe of himself has there been a sporting proclamation of such self-aggrandisement. And remember the cultural cringe that caused.With history now his personal plaything, His Rogerness is doing stand-up. It hardly amounts to despicable behaviour but a portion of balance on his sainthood wouldn’t go astray.
Oh , come on. Federer had just won an important match and played very well in doing so. If he was feeling a little giddy about his performance, that hardly constitutes ” self -aggrandisement”.When Muhammed Ali christens himself ” The Greatest” , he garners nothing but applause. When Federer makes understated comments such as ,” definitely a very talented player ” and ” I always knew I had something special ” , he is being arrogant !! ? Do I detect a double standard here ?
The truth is that there is always a segment of the press that wants to cut champions down to size. They are the ones who build up players and they delight in being the first to tear them down. The bigger the champion, the more they are out to get him. Is it to sell more newspapers, more magazines ? Definitely, because controversy always sells better than plain vanilla. Is it the jealousy of the scribe for the man of action ? Yes, I think so. It is very easy to slant an article or a perception with a few insidious words ( such as Federer gloating over his toilet break tactic ) and most readers are not even aware how their feelings have been manipulated.
Some of you reading this post will no doubt attribute it to the ravings of a Federer loyalist who can brook no criticism of his idol. I hope that is not the prevailing opinion. I am a fan of Federer’s but I , first and foremost, I think of myself as a tennis fan and as one who is always objective. Regardless, in my opinion, Roger Federer is the winner and still champion … on and off the court.
P.S I can’t resist recalling how Federer was criticised after last year’s Australian Open when he broke down in tears . He was accused by many in the press and public of raining on Nadal’s parade , deflecting attention away from Nadal in the latter’s moment of triumph. Few people seemed to understand that it was the reaction of an elite athlete who had given it his all only to see his efforts fall just short. Yet,this year, when Murray shed a few tears ( once again, I thought it was quite understandable), it was interpreted quite differently and Murray was portrayed as being more human and more likable because of them. Don’t you think this constitutes a double standard ?